Apostle of Empathy vs. My Monkey Mind

In the current cartoonishly polarized political climate, it seems that one without strong opinions is simply not paying attention. I encounter perspectives that are not only different than mine, but that seem obviously poised to make the world a much worse place, people elevated to positions of power that seem obviously incompetent. I hear the voices of those who support these people, these perspectives, and I find them exasperating. I can’t understand how anyone doesn’t see what I see and, in my stubborn humanness, I want to get angry or to ridicule. My monkey mind grasps at cheap and easy explanations: capital-T They must be wicked or stupid. And in that moment, whatever Their people and policies may or may not achieve, I have indeed made the world worse.

If ever there was an unsympathetic Them, a Them whose ideals were destructive, whose rhetoric inexcusable, it’s the Westboro Baptist Church. In this moving and very important TED talk, Megan Phelps-Roper shares the story of her transformation from Westboro hatemonger into an apostle of empathy. Scorning and mocking her didn’t make her change. People deciding that because her ideals and rhetoric were toxic–as they were–that her reasons for espousing them didn’t matter didn’t make her change. Writing her off as wicked or stupid didn’t make her change. What made her change was being engaged where she was, person to person. Without ever pretending that Westboro’s message was acceptable, people took the risk of getting to know her. Her enemies took on flesh, as it were, and dwelt with her.

My gut remains a very human gut, so I can’t promise my thoughts on those who espouse a different politics than I do these days won’t ever again go to an unhelpful place, nor even that I won’t ever again lose my temper and speak carelessly–I am, after all, a hairy red person whose mouth runs substantially faster than his brain, which has still not left 1995. But I hope to keep trying to engage and understand what leads good people to embrace what seem to me to be obviously bad ideas. And I’ll keep wondering what cherished ideas of mine I’ll one day look back on and think were obviously bad.

 

The Gospel according to Legos

This is adapted from a sermon I preached today at the hospital chapels in Lexington.

Imagine that you’re sitting in church on Sunday morning. The preacher has just got started—you’re not even checking your watch yet—and in walks a man carrying a bucket of peanuts. He plops down next to you and starts going to town, cracking open the peanuts, gobbling them up, and tossing the shells on the floor. When I imagine this, I envision turning my head 360 degrees—Exorcist style—to give him a seriously dirty look. I can even imagine mean old Chaplain Jeff pulling him aside and explaining to him what he’s doing wrong.

And what is he doing wrong? He’s not killing anybody, of course, but we have rules, after all. They may be unwritten—there’s no stone tablets explaining that church isn’t the Lonestar Steakhouse—but we have a certain way of doing things, and this man’s behavior is simply outside of the bounds of our rules.

Now imagine that he begins to share his story. He shares that his parents died when he was a child, that he got mixed up in drugs as a youngster, that it has really messed with his head. He shares that he’s lost and lonely, that his struggles make most people want to turn the other way, and that those who do bother to speak to him mostly just give him lectures about society’s rules that he can’t quite seem to understand. Then he shares that he hasn’t been in a church since he was a child and that he thought maybe, just maybe, he might find some people here who would accept him as he is, who might welcome him and in whose fellowship he might start to rebuild his life.

Well, in this—I promise—imaginary story, guess who now feels about three inches tall? Mean old Chaplain Jeff.

Jesus gives us a mighty tall order today (Matthew 5:38-48). “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If Jesus told me to sit at the piano until I figure out how to play the Hymn to Joy, I’d starve to death before I figured it out, because I haven’t touched a piano a day in my life. Yet I’d still knock that one out long before I began to live up to a call to be perfect if perfection is understood as following all the rules without any misstep.

Rules, laws play an important role in our lives. We often hear people speaking of us as a people of laws, a nation of laws. I’m sure they mean well when they say that, but I’d like to suggest that that’s not the case at all. I wear glasses, and my vision is so bad that I desperately need them. Without them, the world is a blur of unrecognizable colors and shadows. I’d be lost and maybe dead without them. There is a woundedness in my power of sight that my glasses help to correct, to guide me when I’m fixing to—maybe even literally—fall off a cliff. But my glasses don’t define me. They don’t make me who I am. I am a person with glasses, but I am not a person of glasses. In the same way, I’d offer that we are a people, a nation with laws, with rules that nudge us in the right direction when we’re liable to stray. But we are not a nation of laws.

Instead, as Christians, we are called to be a people of love. Rules, laws are valuable only insofar as they empower us to become just that. In themselves, they have about as much value as my glasses do when sitting unused on my night stand.

The heart of biblical law is love: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18). Jesus in the biblical story did not come to abolish the law. He didn’t come to enforce the law, either, but to fulfill it by setting the example of complete, self-giving love. Perfection is not following all the rules for the sake of rules. The perfection advocated by Jesus is being authentic, being whole, being complete persons of integrity in ourselves and among each other. We find that wholeness, not in isolation, not by ourselves, looking out for what we think is in our own best interest, but by being in a relationship of gratitude, and of self-giving love with God, with ourselves, with our environment, and with one another.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of stepping barefoot on a Lego building block, you know that there are few greater agonies known to man. That tiny, rectangular block has the power to send inexplicable shockwaves of devastation into the bare human foot. When foot meets Lego, the result is always Lego, 1, foot, 0. We suffer, and the Lego goes on about its business like nothing happened. The simple, obvious lesson is that people aren’t Legos.

lego

Since we’re not Legos, we don’t grow just by adding pieces to ourselves. The great and beautiful mystery of this adventure we call human life is that we grow, we become more whole, more complete by giving away and sharing parts of ourselves with others.

Jesus calls us to offer ourselves to one another, to be built up and made perfect by celebrating the gift that is our life by becoming gift to others, by being people and a people that welcomes and cares for not only those we know, those we like, those who make us comfortable, but those who are different, those who are strangers, those who frighten us.

Rules, laws are there to guide us in our journey toward more perfect love, but there are merely pointers, merely signs along the way. They are not the destination. Laws cannot make us perfect, they cannot make us whole, and laws cannot be allowed to get in way of the Law, the call to be in loving harmony with all creation, with God, and with one another.

Of the four gospels, Matthew’s is the account of Jesus’ ministry that is the most inspired by the ancient Law of Moses, that values laws the most, that raises a cautious eyebrow at the more freedom-focused thought of the Apostle Paul, yet even there, in such a Torah-centered gospel, when Jesus encounters people focused on following the rules and overlooking the greater, divine Law of perfect love, he does not hesitate to say, “you have heard it said ‘so and so’—said in the Bible, no less—“but I say unto you, no. Love one another.”

This sentiment was beautifully encapsulated by St. Augustine long ago: “Inasmuch as love grows in you, in so much beauty grows; for love is itself the beauty of the soul. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what you will.”

In our imaginary story of the man with the peanuts, mean old Chaplain Jeff may have been a stickler for the rules, but in being so I fell further from the perfection modeled by Jesus, while our poor, broken guest, reaching out in vulnerability, searching for meaning and love, was well on his way.

Occupy Vanity: Ecclesiastes and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

This is a lecture I gave in 2013 in a course on the Wisdom Literature, examining the Book of Ecclesiastes in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The course was taught by the Rev. Dr. Damien Dietlein, OSB–or, as we called him, “Damo”–, a legend at Saint Meinrad and a biblical scholar of the highest caliber and a minister of the deepest love. Studying under such a giant is among the greatest honors of my life.

The Occupy movement seemed to die not with a bang but a whimper, but, in light of the current climate, I can’t help but wonder if that whimper doesn’t camouflage a bang still waiting to get rebung. But what do I know?

References in the lecture to Támez are to Elsa Támez. “Ecclesiastes: a Reading from the Periphery.” Interpretation: A Journal Of Bible & Theology 55, no. 3 (July 2001): 250-259. References to Seow are from Choon-Leong Seow’s Anchor Bible: Ecclesiastes.

If You’re Looking to Make My Day…

..then what you’re gonna want to do is write a 2016 doctoral dissertation on my main man, Rev. W. Norris Clarke, S.J. (1915-2008), have it available for free online, and have me discover it earlier today by total surprise. That’s just what John J. Winkowitsch has done with his W. Norris Clarke’s Relational Metaphysics: Being and Person from Catholic University of America. Clarke first came on my radar about ten years ago in an undergrad course in metaphysics through his 2000 magnum opus The One and the Many, and his thought has done more to shape–not dictate–my own than any other thinker I’ve been exposed to in my adult life. Sadly, Fr. Clarke passed away not long after I first learned of his work, so I never had the chance to meet him.

frnorrisclarke

Yes, I see my typo in “Person-to-Person.” No, I’m not fixing it. You lose some.

Winkowitsch’s dissertation is pretty much what I’ll be up to for the next few days. From the abstract:

William Norris Clarke firmly placed “person” at the core of his philosophy. He spent much of his career attempting to develop a Thomistic metaphysics that took into account phenomenological insights into the nature of person as relational. His life-long philosophical project was an attempt to articulate a Thomistically-inspired relational metaphysics that united the scholastic notion of person as substance with the phenomenological notion of person as relation. The final result of Clarke’s creative retrieval of Thomas Aquinas was, in his own words, the personalization of being itself from within Thomistic metaphysics, such that the ultimate meaning of existence is person-to-person gift and the ultimate key to the mystery of existence is interpersonal love.

For more sweet, sweet Norris Clarke nuggets online, Fordham has the full text of The Philosophical Approach to God available. And justifying the existence of the Internet in its entirety, below are two videos of Clarke in conversation with another favorite philosopher of mine, the late James Arraj. (For those keeping score, I’m more inclined to Arraj’s take on relational realism, which follows William Carlo and leans heavily on the relational as what is real, denying essence any objective existence at all. I know–just wait’ll all the single the ladies hear about that!)

Taking A New Look at the Hebrew Bible

torah

 

Bobby Valentine, who writes the excellent blog Stoned-Campbell Disciple, is in the midst of a fascinating series called The Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament. In it he explores long-standing approaches to the Old Testament in Christian biblical theology, which have colored academic biblical studies and Christian preaching for generations, which see the Jewish scripture largely in terms of a legalistic manifesto aimed at mapping a path for humans to earn divine favor, as opposed to the Christian scripture, which celebrates the freely given grace and love of God.

In a highly relevant and credible historical survey, Mr. Valentine shows how this vision very much misses the arc of the converging pre-Christian Hebrew theologies we find in the Bible. In the era of the Reformation, Luther and his fellow Reformers, rightly denouncing how corruptions in the institutional Western Church had obfuscated the message of grace through self-serving ecclesiastical systems, projected their battle with Rome onto the Pauline struggle with those who opposed opening covenantal love to the nations. In short, the Reformers read all of medieval Christianity as a battle between grace and legalism and projected that same battle onto Paul. Our perception of the Old Testament as a graceless, loveless rulebook is the result in large part of these dual unfair projections.*

(*If I may be permitted one friendly quibble, Mr. Valentine’s language doesn’t always make clear that the first projection was also painting with far too wide a brush. There was much vibrant, grace-driven, love-focused life in the medieval Catholic Church and in Scholastic theology, as real as the corruptions the Reformers opposed were. Can I get a high-five from my fellow Campbellite Thomists? Anybody?)

Through the series, Mr. Valentine explores how Torah means so much more than just law, and how the Old Testament is steeped in celebrations of grace and love.

Apologia Pro Vida Loca

vida

 

In the last few months, as I’ve shared before, I’ve experienced major transitions in the way I live out my Christian identity and ministry. Nine months ago, I was a candidate for priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and happy to move forward into that ministry if I had been invited to do so, and would have served loyally and well for the rest of my days and have counted it a life well lived–even reaching the point where I ceremonially declared at the altar of God Most High my intention to enter that ministry, after being unanimously and without reservation endorsed for such ministry by my seminary faculty; today, I am a hospital chaplain who worships with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Many dear friends have asked for a fuller accounting of how this transition occurred, so I’ll try to lay it out here as best I can. Please know that there is no polemical intent in this posting. When I speak of how my thoughts have developed, I don’t mean to imply that your thoughts should develop that way, too. I’m grateful to my friend Sarah C. and to a chaplaincy fellowship opportunity I’m applying for, as a letter from her and the application process gave me the opportunity to put much of this together. Since I’m not even almost disciplined enough to journal, these were my first opportunities to put this all together in one place.

promises

Making solemn ordination promises at Saint Meinrad Seminary upon faculty reccomendation for ordination, 2016.

 

That the evolution of my faith life led me to part formal company with the Roman Catholic Church is something that, in a sense, has been coming for years, while just a year ago, I didn’t see it coming and was preparing for a very different path. I use the word “evolution” when describing my faith life intentionally. By that, I don’t mean progression from something lower to something higher or from something worse to something better, but rather that coming out of the chaos of life, with no tool other than the mistake and the mutation, my faith has developed in each period of my life in a way most suitable for its survival and continuation.

In a sense, I’ve been on the same trajectory since my youth in the churches of Christ, a trajectory of asking questions and not letting my opinion yesterday be the dictator of my decisions tomorrow. It makes life messy–hitting the mid-life reset button has its challenges—but without that spirit of engaging things, without the same tendencies that led me to part ways with Roman Catholicism, I would never have had the incomparable blessing of being part of Roman Catholicism for 20 years. So, in the revisionist narrative in my mind, anyway, coming into the Roman Catholic Church and walking away were part of the same movement, totally consistent with each other.

Sometimes even I forget that what first put Roman Catholicism on my radar as a teenager wasn’t questions of orthodoxy and authority, but bumbling into documents of Vatican II, especially Nostra aetate on Christian relations with people of other faith traditions. Though I was already a preacher by 14, it didn’t take long into my work to be troubled by our exclusivism. That exclusivism was not bigotry, but the—or, at least, a—logical progression from our teaching on the nature and form of baptism, which blended an Anabaptist view on the form of the rite with a biblical and historically Catholic view on its nature. (That I came from the most conservative segment of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the noninstitutional churches, and that, unlike some peoples’ stories you’ll read, my experiences in the churches of Christ were personally very healthy, have surely colored everything that has come after.) Vatican II’s message that other Christians were separated brethren and that the Spirit of God blows where he wills, even in the lives of followers of other religious paths, was a breath of fresh air, and it inspired me to explore Catholicism further.

Somewhere along the line, given the positions with which I was raised, I got spooked, and took a rightward shift in my thinking, sort of hitting the brakes on the opening of my mind for the sake of security. I turned back to the questions that my upbringing in the churches of Christ had instilled in me—what’s the one, true Church, the one true faith? The problem was that I had already begun to be exposed to enough historical-critical scholarship to tell me that the answer seemed to be almost certainly not a one-to-one institutional correspondence between the true Church and our own fellowship in the churches of Christ. So, I kept exploring Roman Catholicism—being deep in history may not, it turns out, mean ceasing to be Protestant, but it does mean being deep in Catholicism—and found what struck me at the time as much more credible answers to the questions my upbringing in the churches of Christ taught me to ask than they themselves had.

So, in I came, and when I did, at 17, I did so fully convinced that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true Church, teaching the one true faith, that the magisterium infallibly proclaims dogma, and that only Catholic ministries and sacraments—and those they recognize—were valid. It meant embracing that my own ministry and the ministries of those who served my family and me for generations, were, at least in a sense, illicit–”absolutely null and utterly void” is how Leo XIII would characterize them, and that the communions I received every Sunday all my life were so objectively inferior to the ones I was about to receive that I could look forward to my “first communion” after receiving communion with dear brothers and sisters in Christ for ten years.

confirm

Photo with friends after Confirmation and reception into the Roman Catholic Church, 1998

Still, compared to the ideological—and, to reiterate, entirely non-bigoted—exclusivism of the fellowship of my youth, Catholic exclusivism is quite moderate—as far removed from the perspective of many in the churches of Christ as the churches of Christ are from Westboro—so even becoming a conservative, EWTN-style Catholic was a liberalizing move. I found my experience of Catholicism to be truly awesome. That’s not just diplomacy or false graciousness. The language and imagery I use to relate to the divine is to this day deeply Catholic. Thomas Aquinas remains and shall ever be my homeboy. Albeit sometimes with some nuance, I can’t think of a single thing affirmed by Catholic teaching that I can’t assent to.

The affirmations are great. It’s them pesky negations!

Even now, I have no problem identifying the Roman Catholic Church as a true Church, the Catholic faith as a true faith, but my conviction that it is the one true Church, the one true faith started eroding as early as 1999 and 2000, when I was first in undergraduate seminary. I had outstanding professors in scripture in both college and grad school, and, being a Bible dork anyway, I dove into critical scholarship of scripture and Church history. (Though always as a buff; I’m too unsystematic and dyslexically monoglotic to be a real scholar myself.) In undergrad seminary, we all majored in philosophy, and I tried, between awesome nights of making memories with my amigos, to take seriously the work of exploring perspectives that challenged my own. As a teenage preacher in the churches of Christ, I once preached that we should give serious thought to including the Apocrypha in our Old Testament canon, not imagining that this tangential idea would put me on a path into Catholicism. As a 20 year old seminarian, I wrote papers defending the validity of Anglican orders and Mormon baptism, not imagining that these tangents were the first steps on a long journey out the back door. I remember my reaction when reading Cardinal Ratzinger‘s—who I actually admire quite a bit and whose Introduction to Christianity is one of my all-time favorite works of theology—Dominus Iesus, which reiterated the Catholic claim that non-Catholic communities don’t merit the name church: It started with an ‘m’ and rhymed with “high class.”

I took to heart the Thomist principle that the divine is unknowable as it is in itself, that all God language, even inspired God language, is an analogy in which the proposed likeness is exceeded infinitely by unlikeness. It seems to follow from this that all narrative God language is myth—even when it’s historically rooted—and all propositional God language is metaphor. That made dogma itself a problematic concept for me. When two metaphors stand in tension—or even contradiction—I’m not sure it’s meaningful to say that one of them is wrong. More or less helpful from a certain perspective, and sometimes even harmful, but facticity and falsehood strike me as simply out of the metaphor’s jurisdiction. Proposing a set of metaphors as dogma and anathematizing others—no, anathematizing people because they prefer others—when even the orthodox proposition is infinitely more unlike the reality of the divine than it is like it, became a harder and harder sell for me over the years. I happen to think that Nicaea and Chalcedon—and even, in its own way, Trent—were brilliant, and they remain in large part the prism through which I view God. My issue was never with the dogmas, but with dogma itself.

As I’ve explored and continue to explore the historical origins of scripture and of the Church, I’ve found the model of an originally uniform and orthodox Church being split and degraded by heretical sects and ideas, the model often proposed both in the churches of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, not to match the evidence particularly well. Instead, it looks a lot more like diversity all the way down. The Matthean community is definitely not the Pauline, is definitely not the Johannine, and they’re sometimes in deep tension, yet all are Church. The solution to Christian disunity I held in my youth—to oversimplify–was to de-Christianize everybody outside our gates. The Roman Catholic solution—also oversimplified–is to hope for the day when other communities are absorbed by her own. My present mindset is that the most historically conscious means to unity—the most authentic way, if you will, to restore first century Christianity—is to welcome and celebrate a diversity of perspectives and communities. I don’t mean by that a sheer relativism, as if all differences between theologies don’t matter—I’m fully ready to scrutinize my pet peeve theologies, like double predestination, the prosperity gospel, or the exclusion of women from an equal place in ministry—but they matter less than what we hold in common, the Lordship of Christ, and I feel bound by conscience to welcome those who hold contrary views to the Lord’s Table. When the day came when I was in search of a new community for my primary affiliation, then, it would have to be one which extended such a welcome.

I stayed in the Roman Catholic Church for years out of a sense of loyalty and true love for a community that has enriched my soul for so long—and I was so greatly blessed by my time with them. But I reached a point last year where it was made painfully clear to me that as a minister, there simply was no longer a place for me to serve healthily and with integrity. I used to say that I’d have made a heck of a priest in 1975. While there were plenty of tensions and high emotions in my departure, there’s no ill will. Like Paul and Barnabas, my dear Catholic friends and I will continue to serve the same mission, just in different places and in different ways.

The Disciples of Christ came on my radar several years ago. Once I got over the need to salve my own insecurities by being an apologist and going on the attack against the churches of Christ, I began re-exploring my own faith heritage. I found much in my own Stone-Campbell roots that spoke deeply to me where I was at, especially in Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone. The Disciples have carried on with the unity pillar of the Restoration Movement on a progressive and inclusive trajectory that feels very much like home for me. For years, I’ve thought of them as the community I would join if I were in the market for a community. It’s just that I wasn’t in the market until recent months. I’m very hopeful for our future together.